As Santa Claus and his reindeer are to the secular celebration of Christmas, so the three wise men and the creche are to the religious celebration. Even most of the non-religious (or non-Christian) among us recognize the symbolism of the nativity scene: it depicts the biblical account of three wise men from the east who rode atop camels and followed a star to Bethlehem, bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child who lay in a manger.
The truth is, the Bible contains virtually none of these details. They have all been added over the years from sources outside the Bible.
Mathew 2:1 tells us:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem . . .
That’s it. Matthew doesn’t say how many wise men came from the east, doesn’t mention their names, and doesn’t provide any details about how they made their journey.
It has generally been assumed that the wise men (or magi) were three in number because Matthew 2:11 makes mention of three gifts: “. . . they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.” The number of wise men is not specified in the Bible, however, and some Eastern religions have claimed up to twelve of them made the journey to Bethlehem. The names of the wise men, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, do not come from the Bible and did not appear in Christian literature until over five hundred years after the birth of Jesus. Nothing in the Bible says the wise men rode camels (or any other animal); they may have made their journey from the east on foot for all we know. And despite the familiar lyrics of the Christmas carol “We Three Kings,” no biblical source depicts the three wise men as kings. (They were most likely learned men, perhaps astrologers.)
However many wise men there were, and however they got to Bethlehem, the Bible tells us they arrived just after the birth and found the baby Jesus in a manger, right?
Not quite. Matthew 2:11 states:
And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him . . .
The wise men came “into the house,” not the stable, and they saw a “young child,” not a newborn. This passage indicates that the wise men didn’t arrive until quite some time after Jesus’ birth. (According to Luke 2, it was shepherds, not wise men, who visited the infant Jesus in the manger.)
To sum up: we know from the Bible that wise men came from the east, that they followed a star to Bethlehem to find the Christ child, and that they brought him gold, and frankincense and myrrh. We must look to sources external to the Bible to find the origins of any of the other familiar details, however.